After a bruising primary season, the Republican ticket in New Hampshire looks like an arranged marriage between a popular, moderate, governor in Chris Sununu running for reelection and a more right-wing, self-proclaimed outsider vying for US Senate.
After calling each other names , the two men are now united for what they see as the greater good – a Republican Senate and a fourth term for Sununu.
And it’s not just in New Hampshire. This newfound unity is more common as the general election approaches and the stakes – GOP victory or defeat – become more real. In Arizona, for instance, the state’s term-limited GOP governor, Doug Ducey is now rallying around the candidacy of Kari Lake after supporting her opponent in the primary. And Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who held former President Donald Trump at arm’s length during his 2021 campaign, is now campaigning for Lake – an election denier in Trump’s mold – explaining it this way to CNN’s Jake Tapper, “What Arizona deserves is a Republican governor…”
And yet, as the more establishment Republicans close ranks, the wannabee politicians say they’re doing things differently.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who served 10 tours in Afghanistan and ran unsuccessfully for the GOP Senate nod in 2020, told CNN that he is part of a “new ilk of the Republican Party” as he takes on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan this fall. It’s a matchup that many Republicans think has made this race less competitive than it would have been had Sununu run for Senate and been the GOP nominee.
“We need an outsider,” Bolduc told CNN, making his case against Hassan.
“Not the establishment, not special interests, not lobbyists, and certainly not wealthy political elite. That’s the problem,” he said to supporters at a VFW town hall in Hudson, New Hampshire, to a round of thunderous applause.
Bolduc has an uphill battle against Hassan, a former governor who has vastly outraised him. He narrowly won a packed Republican primary in September, beating state Senate President Chuck Morse, who was backed by Sununu and much of the state’s GOP establishment, plus outside spending from a group allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
It wasn’t a pretty primary season. Sununu, who decided late in 2021 not to run for Senate, and Bolduc traded personal attacks, with Bolduc accusing the governor of being a communist “sympathizer” last year – a claim he later walked back – and Sununu calling Bolduc a “conspiracy theorist-type candidate” the month before the primary.
But the two embraced – quite literally – at a GOP Unity breakfast after the September 13 primary. There was no choice, New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Stephen Stepanek told CNN: “We all have to put our differences behind us because united, Republicans will win; divided, we will lose, and everybody seems to be embracing that wholeheartedly.”
That includes some New Hampshire Republican voters who want to win this fall.
“I think Republicans sometimes are amateur when it comes to politics, and by that I mean, I don’t agree with a lot of the policies or stances of the Democratic Party. But they play to win, they do, they stick together,” Bolduc supporter Paul Grant told CNN, explaining that he wished his party stuck together more.
For Republicans in New Hampshire, though, sticking together isn’t enough. A conservative candidate like Bolduc also needs to appeal to independent voters, who are more than one third of the electorate in this state that President Joe Biden carried by 7 points in 2020.
Trying to do so, however, has required some adjustments.
During the primary, Bolduc – who was not endorsed by Trump – boasted that he wrote a letter with “120 other generals and admirals” stating, baselessly, that Trump won the 2020 election. At a debate, he proudly emphasized, “I’m not switching horses, baby.”
But just two days after the primary, Bolduc said on Fox News that after some “research,” he no longer believed the 2020 election was stolen.
At a town hall event earlier this month, however, he said, “I can’t say that it was stolen or not, sir,” in response to a question. “I don’t have enough information. But what I can say is that we have irregularities, we have fraud.”
He told CNN in an interview after the town hall that the election was “not stolen,” while repeating the “irregularities and fraud” line. There is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.
Bolduc portrays himself as a fighter his party wants and needs. And in a post-primary interview on Fox News, Sununu – who had once criticized him – said of the GOP Senate nominee, “He’s an amazing individual with this background – with this war hero background, who just wants to stand up and serve.”
GOP strategist Brad Todd believes that the desire for more pugnacious politicians is all about the failure of conventional politics – beginning with the GOP’s inability to repeal the Affordable Care Act when they regained control of the Senate in 2014.
Trump then brought a fighter mentality to center stage.
“I think in some ways, Donald Trump was not a longtime soldier in the Republican Party,” Todd said. “But they thought he was an effective soldier for hire – a mercenary, if you will.”
Trump got establishment Republicans to rally around him, even if they had to hold their noses, with the promise of a conservative majority Supreme Court and a tax overhaul. It’s the same scenario in 2022, with all eyes on the ultimate prize – flipping Congress and winning gubernatorial mansions.
With a presidential race on the horizon, how long the unity lasts remains a question.
The party, Todd said, “is not just a big tent; it’s a big tent with a bar fight.”